How Do Children Show Stress?

The past year and a half has created a new paradigm of stress for many families. A couple of years ago, a stressful day meant losing a baseball game or getting a bad grade on a test. But since 2020, stress means spending months or more indoors separated from friends, struggles with virtual school, and tragic family losses.

As an adult, you’re probably familiar with how you tend to react when stress gets to be too much. You might get snappy or irritable; you might have trouble sleeping; you might struggle to concentrate at work. But for your kids, stress can be expressed in a variety of ways. As a parent, it can help you to know how stress can look in kids of different ages, so you can help your kids recognize and manage it. 

Infants 

You might think that young children are less susceptible to the stressors we’ve experienced in the past year – after all, they don’t understand what COVID means, and their entire lives have been in quarantine. But the truth is that babies and toddlers are highly sensitive to family stress, and even if the pandemic didn’t have a significant impact on their usual routine, the stress you’ve felt has affected them. 

For young babies born just before or during the lockdown, life in a global pandemic is the only life they’ve known. For them, the return to normal schedules might be a bigger stress than anything they’ve experienced yet. If you’ve been home 24/7 for most of your baby’s life, then a new daily routine involving driving, work, and daycare could be a big and stressful change. Babies who are stressed tend to cry more and sleep less, which isn’t likely to improve your stress level (or your ability to get out of the house on time). But any significant change in your baby’s normal behavior could be an indication of stress, from dietary and bowel changes to sleep and activity levels. 

On the bright side, helping your infant better manage stress is relatively easy: nurturing touch and quiet routines can go a long way toward calming them down. Young babies don’t need a lot of entertainment or stimulation, and they usually get enough educational stimulation from daily life, so reducing stress for infants usually means reducing stimulation with calm, quiet time together. Just holding and rocking your baby can cause her cortisol levels to drop. And the bonus? Snuggling with your baby can reduce your stress levels, too. 

Toddlers 

Toddlers who have been growing up in Covid probably appreciate the fact that their parents have been present a lot during quarantine. Just like with babies born in the past year, for young toddlers it’s probably the “new normal” of businesses opening back up and parents going back to work that’s causing the most stress in today’s changing world. 

Just like young babies, toddlers aren’t verbal enough to talk clearly about their feelings, so they mostly express stress through behavioral changes. Bedtime resistance and nighttime wakings are a common sign, as are bowel changes, dietary changes, and activity changes. Stressed-out toddlers might become more clingy and unwilling to go to daycare or play with friends, and they might have nightmares or bedtime fears. They might also say they feel sick and complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pain. Finally, of course, toddlers will show stress with their favorite way to express emotions – tantrums. 

One of the biggest ways to help toddlers manage stress is with familiar routines. So while it’s helpful to acknowledge what your child is feeling, and to name the emotion they’re expressing, it’s usually not helpful to change your usual plans in response to your child’s tantrums. Giving your toddler choices can help them feel empowered, but too many choices or too much change will make them feel out of control. Rather than saying “ok, you don’t have to go to daycare today,” try offering a choice like “do you want to put on your shoes first or your pants first?” Keeping a (somewhat flexible) routine and structure helps toddlers feel more secure, which reduces stress in the long run – even if it means you have to push through some protests.

It’s also common for stressed-out toddlers to invent routines out of random things you happen to do once. For example, if one morning you give your child orange juice and then a plate of scrambled egg, they might decide that this routine is essential and get angry if the next morning you give them eggs first and then orange juice. As your routines are changing in the transition out of quarantine, it can help toddlers to maintain as many daily routines as you can — even if they seem minor or silly. 

School Aged Children 

For school-aged kids, school and friends are a key source of both social learning and emotional support. Kids who’ve been separated from friends for much of the past year might have been really stressed by the isolation – and even more stressed about the return to school. If they haven’t seen their friends in a long time, they might worry that their friends don’t like them anymore. They might feel that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to make friends or how to play with other people. All of this might mean they have very mixed feelings about the coming school year – a perfect recipe for stress and worry. 

These emotions can show up in a variety of ways. Just like with younger children, your first clue will probably be behavioral shifts such as changes in sleeping, eating, or activity levels. School-aged kids who are stressed might withdraw from family and friends, or they might lash out and get in fights with friends or siblings. They might also have problems with grades due to difficulty concentrating or a loss of interest in schoolwork. 

Vague physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches, are another common symptom of stress in school-age children. Younger school-aged kids may also regress with behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking, or even tantrums. 

Even though these kids’ language skills are developed enough to talk about complex emotions, they probably don’t have the emotional awareness to understand or put into words what they’re feeling. If your school-aged child is lashing out or overreacting to seemingly small problems, it’s probably a sign that their level of stress is at the tipping point. 

While talking about their emotions can help, talking about anything can actually help kids at this age process stress as long as they feel like you’re listening and you care. Schedule time every day to just listen to your child talk about whatever’s on their mind, even it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. This might feel like a waste of time when all they ever want to talk about is their favorite video game or the latest video they watched on YouTube. But if you provide that space every day to listen, then eventually they’ll surprise you by sharing the emotions and fears that are worrying most. Playing with you is also a powerful way for school-aged kids to connect and express themselves, so make time to play what they enjoy – even if that means playing that video game you hate. 

Teenagers 

Teens are almost adults, and they’re likely to express stress in many of the same ways you do: getting snappy and irritable, having trouble concentrating, and having outbursts of frustration or anger. But because they’re teens and have a harder time regulating their emotions than you do, these outbursts are likely to be more extreme than an adult’s. 

Peer relationships are incredibly important to teens, but they’re also a big source of stress – and never more than now that they’ve been strained by separation and quarantine in unprecedented ways. Stressed teens might withdraw from friends and from social activities, and they might express worries that no one likes them or they have no friends. 

Teens can also react to stress with the same types of behavior changes as younger kids, such as trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and difficulty concentrating. 

However, all of these behaviors can be hard to distinguish from normal teenage moodiness, so how do you know if your child is stressed-out or just hormonal?

The truth is this: It doesn’t matter. No matter whether your child is dealing with the normal stress of teen hormones or the massive stress of transitioning out of a global pandemic, the emotions they’re feeling are real to them. It’s normal for teenagers to feel that problems that seem small to you are devastating and life-changing, and as their parent, it’s your job to accept those emotions and support them through them. Even if you think the source of their stress seems unimportant, treat it like it’s as big a deal as your child feels it is.

Just like with younger kids, scheduling time every day to talk with your teen about whatever’s on their mind can help them manage stress in their lives. Even if they don’t talk with you about what’s really bothering them, making yourself available is a statement to them that you care about their emotions. And just like younger kids, teens will eventually tell you what they’re feeling if you give them enough space and time and listen without any judgement. 

Stress is normal, and major transitions are always going to be stressful. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, it’s impossible to prevent your children from experiencing stress. However, the first step to helping them manage it is for you to recognize it for what it is. Once you understand that your child is dealing with big emotions, you are better equipped to help them manage and process stress. In our next blog post, we will talk about ways to help kids process stress and trauma.